Statue of Tara
The Statue of Tara on display in Room 33 at the British Museum
|Size||143 cm high|
|Created||8th century AD|
|Present location||British Museum, London|
The Statue of Tara is a gilt-bronze sculpture of the Bodhisattva Tara that dates from the 8th century AD in Sri Lanka. Found by chance in the early nineteenth century, it was given to the British Museum in 1830 by the former British Governor of Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known then), Sir Robert Brownrigg.
Buddhism has had a continuous history on the island of Sri Lanka ever since the third century BC. The figure dates to the Sri Lankan Anuradhapura Kingdom founded in 377 BC by King Pandukabhaya. Buddhism played a strong role in the Anuradhapura period, influencing its culture, laws, and methods of governance. Tara shows evidence of the cultural interaction of Buddhism with Hinduism. Tara had been a Hindu mother goddess but was redesigned for a new role within Buddhism. Sri Lanka is today a Theravada Buddhist country, like many other countries in South East Asia.
At one time this statue was thought to be a model of the guardian deity Pattini, but it is now agreed that this statue is of Tara. This identification is clear evidence for the presence in the medieval period of Mahayana Buddhism as well as the Theravada form of the faith which allows Buddhists to worship beings other than Buddha. The statue suggests that Tara may have been worshipped as a deity and not just as the consort of a male god.
The sculpture represents a standing figure of a female deity solid cast in bronze using the lost wax process. The statue is about three quarter life size and it has been gilded to create the luxurious, golden appearance. The goddess's hour-glass upper body is naked with a lower garment tied to the hips with an almost ankle length hemline. Tara's right hand is shown in the gesture of giving while her left hand is thought to have held a lotus flower, now lost. The figure wears a high crown dominated by a medallion. The hole in the crown is supposed to have held a large precious stone. The statue is the only known Anuradhapura example of this size that now survives. The statue would have been valuable not just from its appearance but also because of its manufacture. The statue was not hollow but made from an expensive metal using a technologically advanced technique of lost wax casting.
This rare sculpture was found in the early 1800s somewhere between Trincomalee and Batticaloa on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. It was subsequently acquired by the then British Governor, Sir Robert Brownrigg, who later donated it to the British Museum. This account however is rejected by the authorities in Sri Lanka who believe that Brownrigg took the statue from the last King of Kandy when the British annexed Kandy. Kandy came under British rule in March 1815 under the terms of the Kandyan Convention which was organised by Brownrigg.
When the British Museum acquired the statue, in the 1830s, they were concerned that the large exposed breasts, narrow waist and curvaceous hips would be seen as too erotic for the public so it was kept out of sight for thirty years. The statue was only available for scholars to study even though it was never in doubt that the purpose of this statue had always been religious rather than to arouse. This scholarly study is strangely reminiscent of the statue's ancient status in Sri Lanka. It is thought that the statue would have only been seen in Sri Lanka by chosen priests and monks and it would not have been seen by the general population of Buddhists.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Statue of Tara, British Museum.|
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- R.E. Fisher, Buddhist art and architecture (London, Thames & Hudson, 1993)
- R. Thapar, The Penguin History of Early India from the Origins to AD 1300 (London, 2002)
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